A pharmacist’s guide to safe and proper medication disposal

By Melody Sun, clinical pharmacist at CHOC

Medications can have harmful consequences if they are not properly handled. The following steps will help you ensure the medication in your home is properly disposed, with minimal chance for discarded medications to cause illness. Consult your local pharmacy, or local garbage and recycling facility with specific questions.

General guidelines

Medicine take-back days are the preferred way to safely dispose of most types of medications. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency holds periodic national drug take-back events, where temporary collection sites are set up in communities for safe disposal of prescription medications. Find out more about upcoming drug take-back days.

If there are no specific instructions in the medication package insert, you can follow these simple steps to dispose of most medicines in the trash:

  • Pour unwanted or expired medications out of their original containers into a zip baggie.
  • Pour hot water (over 110OF – about as hot as a cup of coffee) into the baggie.
  • Insert kitty litter or another inedible product such as dirt or used coffee grounds into the baggie. Seal baggie. Place in trash bin.
  • Remove all personal information on the prescription label or empty pill bottles. Shred them or use a black marker to cross out label information.


Devices that penetrate the skin to deliver medication are known as sharps. Any medication that requires delivery with a needle, such as an Epi-pen or insulin pen, comes with a high risk of accidental injuries, so it must be properly disposed in a sharps container. Some drug companies provide a red sharps container for using their medications. Please refer to their website for directions on how to obtain it. You can also purchase a sharps container through various approved mail-back services or make your own.

A sharps container is:

  • Made of heavy-duty plastic
  • Puncture- and leak-resistant with a tight-fitting lid when closed
  • Upright and stable when used
  • Properly labeled to provide caution about hazardous/sharps waste
  • Example containers to use: plastic detergent bottles, liquid fabric softener bottles, empty bleach bottles


 Inhalers (aerosols)

Most inhalers can be safely thrown into the regular trash or recycled. Contact your local garbage or recycling facility for specific instructions.


 Children may mistake medicated patches as stickers, which can lead to overdoses or even death. When discarding medicated patches, keep in mind the following safety steps to prevent kids from being accidentally exposed to unneeded medicine:

  • Fold the patch together with the medication side inside
  • Mix in an undesirable substance such as cat litter or coffee grounds
  • Place in a sealed container or bag and throw into the regular trash
  • Some patches can be flushed down the toilet. Refer to the Food & Drug Administration flush list.

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One thought on “A pharmacist’s guide to safe and proper medication disposal”

  1. That’s a good idea to remove any personal information from the bottle. I feel like that would help you to avoid identity theft. I’ll have to do that next time I need to get a prescription from the pharmacy.

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